Taron Egerton is at the center of Apple’s new drama “Black Bird,” a show that asks him, foremost, to be a reactive force. Tangled in the prison system after his plan to plead out for a short narcotics-charge sentence blows up, Egerton’s Jimmy Keene is offered the opportunity to get out. His freedom depends on his managing to elicit information out of maximum-security prisoner Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) before he’s freed on appeal. Against Hauser’s massive performance of criminal insanity or just plain insanity, Egerton is forced to be resourceful, to find ways to show us who Jimmy is beyond the object of misfortune: That he largely succeeds pulls “Black Bird” over the line.
Like many shows today, “Black Bird” would plainly work better as a movie; it was developed and executive produced by Dennis Lehane, whose novels, including “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island,” have been grist for films. (Indeed, buoyed by Apple money, the show looks and, with a lovely score by Scottish band Mogwai, sounds better than much streaming TV.) Stretching it out gives more real estate primarily to Hauser, whose performance as a man who is or is not telling the truth about having murdered a slew of young girls diminishes in enigma the more we see. Similarly, Greg Kinnear feels stranded in a subplot about a cop working the case that ends up diluting the energy and verve of what’s happening in the prison. And the late Ray Liotta — in one of his final performances — does great work as Jimmy’s despondent, disappointed, but still loving father, but the series tends to use repeated depictions of his despondent, disappointed love to say three times what could be communicated most clearly once.
Through the haze of running time and of occasional turns toward the ludicrous — Sepideh Moafi plays a law-enforcement officer whose flirty, charged relationship with Jimmy feels like wish-fulfillment — Egerton finds his way through. Jimmy Keene’s existence as a real person (presumably with a story that is slightly less fanciful) doesn’t constrain Egerton, who plays him as a rogue who’s flickeringly aware that his charm has limits. The show is at its strongest when it allows Egerton to express the vulnerability, pain, and fear that exist under an exterior of unflappable charisma and ability. (In this way, perhaps it’s not much of a leap for a performer who previously played a cracking-up, then resurgent Elton John in “Rocketman.”)
One wishes that the show had a more adept ability to play different notes: There’s an overwhelming sense of dread, drawn from the brutality of the crimes for which Larry has been convicted, that grows smothering; released weekly, it should be consumed that way, as it’d make for a miserable binge. (One attempt at tonal variation, in trying to connect the series to a sort of fundamental American grotesqueness through the framing of Hauser’s character’s military re-enactments doesn’t quite connect.) Still, as a frame for a gifted young star, “Black Bird” is serviceable and solidly built; its resolute unsurprisingness, after some very early fireworks, goes from frustrating to serenely comfortable as the hours wear on.
“Black Bird” will launch its first two episodes on Friday, July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+, followed by one new episode weekly every Friday.